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East St. Louis group, trade unions give teens chance to 'live out the American dream'

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EAST ST. LOUIS — Jordan Wade and Ja'Bryan Grissom are two teenagers taking traditional classes before joining the workforce.

But Wade, a freshman at Southwestern Illinois College, and Grissom, a senior at East St. Louis High School, have also found another way to boost their preparations before stepping out as adults.

They are part of the East St. Louis-based R3 Development organization, which aims to empower youths with "job opportunities that equip them with the resources and skills necessary for success."

Or in the words of Kevin Green, one of the R3 Development leaders, the group helps teens "live out the American dream."

The 6-year-old nonprofit group hired 17 teenagers, including Wade and Grissom, for an eight-week summer work academy. This summer's program included construction shop class, construction projects in East St. Louis, field trips and tutoring in math and reading. The field trips included visits to the Melvin Price Locks and Dam in Alton and Scott Air Force Base.

The participants are treated as employees of R3 Development and were paid $12 an hour.

Wade is glad he joined R3 Development six months ago.

"It's a great opportunity," he said. "It's a great training ground."

Wade, 18, said R3 Development lets you "get your hands dirty" while learning new skills. And it "shows you what life is all about," he said.

Getting job experience

Wade is studying highway construction at SWIC but he has an open mind about where to start his career.

Wade likes carpentry, plumbing, flooring, bricklaying and even the all-important job of cleaning up sites for safety.

"I want to be great at whatever I do," he said.

He praised the R3 Development leaders for bringing a faith-based message to the students.

Wade said most of the teens in the R3 Development are from East St. Louis.

"We're coming back to rebuild our community," he said.

"It's positivity in East St. Louis and there's a lot to be done but we can get it done but it starts with us," he said. "We have to lead the way."

Grissom echoed Wade's comments.

"I think it's a really good program for people so that you can learn about God but also learn about the trades."

Grissom, 17, is considering a career as an electrician but he's also open to other fields such as being a bricklayer. That's the field Grissom, Wade and others on the R3 Development team learned about on Saturday.

Members of the Bricklayers Local 8 union volunteered to help make repairs to a duplex at 1444 N. 42nd St. in East St. Louis and to give tips to the R3 Development participants.

Along with the bricklayers, a swarm of other volunteers from churches and businesses across the St. Louis area helped rehab the home on North 42nd Street and also a multifamily building a couple blocks away on North 40th Street off Caseyville Avenue as part of the Lansdowne Community Initiative.

Matt Braun, president of the Bricklayers Local 8 which has union members in 65 counties, said the volunteers were happy to share their tips and talents with the teens.

The duplex is about 100 years old and the brickwork needed a lot of work.

The crew tore out one chimney that was in bad shape and they tuckpointed another with assistance from Diecker-Terry Masonry Inc. from Marissa. The tuckpointing job required old mortar to be removed and then replaced with new mortar.

"As a union standpoint it's important that we do this because kids aren't exposed to this in the schools," Braun said.

Braun said there are openings in the union, which includes bricklayers, tile setters and finishers and tuckpointers. Entry wages start at $15 an hour and progress to $34 an hour.

Promoting East St. Louis

Scott Loeffler, the construction coordinator for R3 Development, was the first employee hired by the group in 2015.

Loeffler, along with other R3 Development leaders, worked on rehabbing the home on North 42nd Street on Saturday.

During a break from the project, Loeffler talked about his passion for R3 Development's mission.

"We're getting these kids more ready for life after high school, which is so important," he said.

"They need to get a good taste of what it's like to be in the real world."

Many of the students in the R3 Development program come from broken families and Loeffler said he strives to be a father figure for them.

Loeffler said he had spent a long career in the construction industry in the metro-east before joining R3 Development. At first he thought he might just be rehabbing homes in East St. Louis. But he found out there was a lot more to it than that.

Loeffler said he once avoided and ignored East St. Louis.

But he soon had a change of heart after working with teens in the R3 Development program.

"The more I got to know my students, the more I realized how wrong I was and I wanted other people to understand that too," he said.

"God calls us to do so much more."


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